They used to go there every evening at about eleven o’clock, just like they went to the café. Six or eight of them used to meet there; they were always the same set, not fast men, but respectable tradesmen, and young men, in government or some other employ, and they used to drink their Chartreuse, and tease the girls, or else they would talk seriously with Madame, whom everybody respected, and then they used to go home at twelve o’clock. The younger men would sometimes stay the night.
It was a small, comfortable house, at the corner of a street behind Saint Etienne’s church, and from the windows one could see the docks, full of ships which were being unloaded, and the old, gray chapel, dedicated to the Virgin, on the hill.
Madame, who came of a respectable family of peasant proprietors in the department of the Eure, had taken up that profession, just as she would have become a milliner or dressmaker. The prejudice against prostitution, which is so violent and deeply rooted in large towns, does not exist in the country places in Normandy. The peasant says:
“It is a paying business,” and he sends his daughter to keep a harem of fast girls, just as he would send her to keep a girls’ school.
She had inherited the house from an old uncle, to whom it had belonged. Monsieur and Madame, who had formerly been inn-keepers near Yvetot, had immediately sold their house, as they thought that the business at Fécamp was more profitable, and they arrived one fine morning to assume the direction of the enterprise, which was declining on account of the absence of the proprietors, who were good people enough in their way, and who soon made themselves liked by their staff and their neighbors.
Monsieur died of apoplexy two years later, for as his new profession kept him in idleness and without any exercise, he had grown excessively stout, and his health had suffered. Since she had been a widow, all the frequenters of the establishment had wanted her; but people said that personally she was quite virtuous, and even the girls in the house could not discover anything against her. She was tall, stout and affable, and her complexion, which had become pale in the dimness of her house, the shutters of which were scarcely ever opened, shone as if it had been varnished. She had a fringe of curly, false hair, which gave her a juvenile look, that contrasted strongly with the ripeness of her figure. She was always smiling and cheerful, and was fond of a joke, but there was a shade of reserve about her, which her new occupation had not quite made her lose. Coarse words always shocked her, and when any young fellow who had been badly brought up, called her establishment by its right name, she was angry and disgusted.
In a word, she had a refined mind, and although she treated her women as friends, yet she very frequently used to say that “she and they were not made of the same stuff.”
Sometimes during the week, she would hire a carriage and take some of her girls into the country, where they used to enjoy themselves on the grass by the side of the little river. They were like a lot of girls let out from a school, and used to run races, and play childish games. They had a cold dinner on the grass, and drank cider, and went home at night with a delicious feeling of fatigue, and in the carriage they kissed Madame as their kind mother, who was full of goodness and complaisance.
The house had two entrances. At the corner there was a sort of low café, which sailors and the lower orders frequented at night, and she had two girls whose special duty it was to attend to that part of the business. With the assistance of the waiter, whose name was Frederic, and who was a short, light-haired, beardless fellow, as strong as a horse, they set the half bottles of wine and the jugs of beer on the shaky marble tables, and then, sitting astride on the customer’s knees, they urged them to drink.
The three other girls (there were only five of them), formed a kind of aristocracy, and were reserved for the company on the first floor, unless they were wanted downstairs, and there was nobody on the first floor. The saloon of Jupiter, where the tradesmen used to meet, was papered in blue, and embellished with a large drawing representing Leda stretched out under the swan. That room was reached by a winding staircase, which ended at a narrow door opening onto the street, and above it, all night long a little lamp burned, behind wire bars, such as one still sees in some towns, at the foot of some shrine of a saint.
The house, which was old and damp, rather smelled of mildew. At times there was an odor of Eau de Cologne in the passages, or a half open door downstairs admitted the noise of the common men sitting and drinking downstairs, to the first floor, much to the disgust of the gentlemen who were there. Madame, who was familiar with those of her customers with whom she was on friendly terms, did not leave the saloon, and took much interest in what was going on in the town, and they regularly told her all the news. Her serious conversation was a change from the ceaseless chatter of the three women; it was a rest from the obscene jokes of those stout individuals who every evening indulged in the common-place debauchery of drinking a glass of liquor in company with prostitutes.
The names of the girls on the first floor were Fernande, Raphaele, and Rosa, the Jade. As the staff was limited, Madame had endeavored that each member of it should be a pattern, an epitome of the feminine type, so that every customer might find as nearly as possible, the realization of his ideal. Fernande represented the handsome blonde; she was very tall, rather fat, and lazy; a country girl, who could not get rid of her freckles, and whose short, light, almost colorless, tow-like hair, which was like combed-out flax, barely covered her head.
Raphaele, who came from Marseilles, played the indispensable part of the handsome Jewess, and was thin, with high cheek bones, which were covered with rouge, and her black hair, which was always covered with pomatum, curled onto her forehead. Her eyes would have been handsome, if the right one had not had a speck in it. Her Roman nose came down over a square jaw, where two false upper teeth contrasted strangely with the bad color of the rest.
Rosa, the Jade, was a little roll of fat, nearly all stomach, with very short legs, and from morning till night she sang songs, which were alternately indecent or sentimental, in a harsh voice, told silly, interminable tales, and only stopped talking in order to eat, and left off eating in order to talk; she was never still, and was active as a squirrel, in spite of her fat, and of her short legs; and her laugh, which was a torrent of shrill cries, resounded here and there, ceaselessly, in a bedroom, in the loft, in the café, everywhere, and about nothing.
The two women on the ground floor, Louise, who was nick-named la Cocotte, and Flora, whom they called Balançiore, because she limped a little, the former always dressed as Liberty, with a tri-colored sash, and the other as a Spanish woman, with a string of copper coins which jingled at every step she took, in her carrotty hair, looked like cooks dressed up for the carnival. They were like all other women of the lower orders, neither uglier nor better looking than they usually are.
They looked just like servants at an inn, and they were generally called the two pumps.
A jealous peace, which was, however, very rarely disturbed, reigned among these five women, thanks to Madame’s conciliatory wisdom, and to her constant good humor, and the establishment, which was the only one of the kind in the little town, was very much frequented. Madame had succeeded in giving it such a respectable appearance, she was so amiable and obliging to everybody, her good heart was so well-known, that she was treated with a certain amount of consideration. The regular customers spent money on her, and were delighted when she was especially friendly towards them, and when they met during the day, they would say: “Until this evening, you know where,” just like men say: “At the café, after dinner.” In a word, Madame Tellier’s house was somewhere to go to, and they very rarely missed their daily meetings there.
One evening, towards the end of May, the first arrival, Monsieur Poulin, who was a timber merchant, and had been mayor, found the door shut. The little lantern behind the grating was not alight; there was not a sound in the house; everything seemed dead. He knocked, gently at first, but then more loudly, but nobody answered the door. Then he went slowly up the street, and when he got to the market place, he met Monsieur Duvert, the gun maker, who was going to the same place, so they went back together, but did not meet with any better success. But suddenly they heard a loud noise close to them, and on going round the house, they saw a number of English and French sailors, who were hammering at the closed shutters of the café with their fists.
The two tradesmen immediately made their escape, for fear of being compromised, but a low pst stopped them; it was Monsieur Tournevau, the fish curer, who had recognized them, and was trying to attract their attention. They told him what had happened, and he was all the more vexed at it, as he, a married man, and father of a family, only went there on Saturdays, securítatis causa, as he said, alluding to a measure of sanitary policy, which his friend Doctor Borde had advised him to observe. That was his regular evening, and now he should be deprived of it for the whole week.
The three men went as far as the quay together, and on the way they met young Monsieur Philippe, the banker’s son, who frequented the place regularly, and Monsieur Pinipesse, the collector, and they all returned to the Rue aux Juifs together, to make a last attempt. But the exasperated sailors were besieging the house, throwing stones at the shutters, and shouting, and the five first floor customers went away as quickly as possible, and walked aimlessly about the streets.
Presently they met Monsieur Dupuis, the insurance agent, and then Monsieur Vasse, the Judge of the Tribunal of Commerce, and they took a long walk, going to the pier first of all, where they sat down in a row on the granite parapet, and watched the rising tide, and when the promenaders had sat there for some time, Monsieur Tournevau said:
“This is not very amusing!”
“Decidedly not,” Monsieur Pinipesse replied, and they started off to walk again.
After going through the street on the top of the hill, they returned over the wooden bridge which crosses the Retenue, passed close to the railway, and came out again onto the market place, when suddenly a quarrel arose between Monsieur Pinipesse, the collector, and Monsieur Tournevau, about an edible fungus which one of them declared he had found in the neighborhood.
As they were out of temper already from annoyance, they would very probably have come to blows, if the others had not interfered. Monsieur Pinipesse went off furious, and soon another altercation arose between the ex-major, Monsieur Poulin, and Monsieur Dupuis, the insurance agent, on the subject of the tax collector’s salary, and the profits which he might make. Insulting remarks were freely passing between them, when a torrent of formidable cries were heard, and the body of sailors, who were tired of waiting so long outside a closed house, came into the square. They were walking arm-inarm, two and two, and formed a long procession, and were shouting furiously. The landsmen went and hid themselves under a gateway, and the yelling crew disappeared in the direction of the abbey. For a long time they still heard the noise, which diminished like a storm in the distance, and then silence was restored, and Monsieur Poulin and Monsieur Dupuis, who were enraged with each other, went in different directions, without wishing each other good-bye.
The other four set off again, and instinctively went in the direction of Madame Tellier’s establishment, which was still closed, silent, impenetrable. A quiet, but obstinate, drunken man was knocking at the door of the café, and then stopped and called Frederic, the waiter, in a low voice, but finding that he got no answer, he sat down on the doorstep, and waited the course of events.
The others were just going to retire, when the noisy band of sailors reappeared at the end of the street. The French sailors were shouting the Marseillaise, and the Englishmen, Rule Britannia. There was a general lurching against the wall, and then the drunken brutes went on their way towards the quay, where a fight broke out between the two nations, in the course of which an Englishman had his arm broken, and a Frenchman his nose split.
The drunken man, who had stopped outside the door, was crying by that time, like drunken men and children cry, when they are vexed, and the others went away. By degrees, calm was restored in the noisy town; here and there, at moments, the distant sound of voices could be heard, and then died away in the distance.
One man, only, was still wandering about, Monsieur Tournevau, the fish curer, who was vexed at having to wait until the next Saturday, and he hoped for something to turn up, he did not know what; but he was exasperated at the police for thus allowing an establishment of such public utility, which they had under their control, to be thus closed.
He went back to it, and examined the walls, and trying to find out the reason, and on the shutter he saw a notice stuck up, so he struck a wax vesta, and read the following in a large, uneven hand; “Closed on account of the Confirmation.”
Then he went away, as he saw it was useless to remain, and left the drunken man lying on the pavement fast asleep, outside that inhospitable door.
The next day, all the regular customers, one after the other, found some reason for going through the street with a bundle of papers under their arm, to keep them in countenance, and with a furtive glance they all read that mysterious notice:
Closed on account of the Confirmation.
Madame had a brother, who was a carpenter in their native place, Virville, in the department of Eure. When Madame had still kept the inn at Yvetot, she had stood god-mother to that brother’s daughter, who had received the name of Constance, Constance Rivet; she herself being a Rivet on her father’s side. The carpenter, who knew that his sister was in a good position, did not lose sight of her, although they did not meet often, for they were both kept at home by their occupations, and lived a long way from each other. But as the girl was twelve years old, and going to be confirmed, he seized that opportunity for writing to his sister, and asking her to come and be present at the ceremony. Their old parents were dead, and as she could not well refuse, she accepted the invitation. Her brother, whose name was Joseph, hoped that by dint of showing his sister attentions, she might be induced to make her will in the girl’s favor, as she had no children of her own.
His sister’s occupation did not trouble his scruples in the least, and, besides, nobody knew anything about it at Virville. When they spoke of her, they only said: “Madame Tellier is living at Fécamp,” which might mean that she was living on her own private income. It was quite twenty leagues from Fécamp to Virville, and for a peasant, twenty leagues on land are more than is crossing the ocean to an educated person. The people at Virville had never been further than Rouen, and nothing attracted the people from Fécamp to a village of five hundred houses, in the middle of a plain, and situated in another department, and, at any rate, nothing was known about her business.
But the Confirmation was coming on, and Madame was in great embarrassment. She had no under mistress, and did not at all care to leave her house, even for a day, for all the rivalries between the girls upstairs and those downstairs, would infallibly break out; no doubt Frederic would get drunk, and when he was in that state he would knock anybody down for a mere word. At last, however, she made up her mind to take them all with her, with the exception of the man, to whom she gave a holiday, until the next day but one.
When she asked her brother, he made no objection, but undertook to put them all up for a night, and so on Saturday morning, the eight o’clock express carried off Madame and her companions in a second-class carriage. As far as Beuzeille, they were alone, and chattered like magpies, but at that station a couple got in. The man, an old peasant, dressed in a blue blouse with a folding collar, wide sleeves, tight at the wrist, and ornamented with white embroidery, wore an old high hat with long nap, held an enormous green umbrella in one hand, and a large basket in the other, from which the heads of three frightened ducks protruded. The woman, who sat stiffly in her rustic finery, had a face like a fowl, and with a nose that was as pointed as a bill. She sat down opposite her husband and did not stir, as she was startled at finding herself in such smart company.
There was certainly an array of striking colors in the carriage. Madame was dressed in blue silk from head to foot, and had on over her dress a dazzling red shawl of imitation French cashmere. Fernande was panting in a Scottish plaid dress, whose bodice, which her companions had laced as tight as they could, had forced up her falling bosom into a double dome, that was continually heaving up and down, and which seemed liquid beneath the material. Raphaele, with a bonnet covered with feathers, so that it looked like a nest full of birds, had on a lilac dress with gold spots on it, and there was something Oriental about it that suited her Jewish face. Rosa, the Jade, had on a pink petticoat with large flounces, and looked like a very fat child, an obese dwarf; while the two pumps looked as if they had cut their dresses out of old, flowered curtains, dating from the Restoration.
As soon as they were no longer alone in the compartment, the ladies put on staid looks, and began to talk of subjects which might give the others a high opinion of them. But at Bolbec a gentleman with light whiskers, with a gold chain, and wearing two or three rings, got in, and put several parcels wrapped in oil cloth into the net over his head. He looked inclined for a joke, and a good-natured fellow.
“Are you ladies changing your quarters?” he said, and that question embarrassed them all considerably. Madame, however, quickly recovered her composure, and said sharply, to avenge the honor of her corps:
“I think you might try and be polite!”
He excused himself, and said: “I beg your pardon, I ought to have said your nunnery.”
As Madame could not think of a retort, or perhaps as she thought herself justified sufficiently, she gave him a dignified bow, and pinched in her lips.
Then the gentleman, who was sitting between Rose the Jade and the old peasant, began to wink knowingly at the ducks, whose heads were sticking out of the basket, and when he felt that he had fixed the attention of his public, he began to tickle them under their bills, and spoke funnily to them, to make the company smile.
“We have left our little pond, quack! quack! to make the acquaintance of the little spit, qu-ack! qu-ack!”
The unfortunate creatures turned their necks away, to avoid his caresses, and made desperate efforts to get out of their wicker prison, and then, suddenly, all at once, uttered the most lamentable quacks of distress. The women exploded with laughter. They leaned forward and pushed each other, so as to see better; they were very much interested in the ducks, and the gentleman redoubled his airs, his wits, and his teasing.
Rosa joined in, and leaning over her neighbor’s legs, she kissed the three animals on the head, and immediately all the girls wanted to kiss them in turn, and the gentleman took them onto his knees, made them jump up and down and pinched them. The two peasants, who were even in greater consternation than their poultry, rolled their eyes as if they were possessed, without venturing to move, and their old wrinkled faces had not a smile nor a movement.
Then the gentleman, who was a commercial traveler, offered the ladies braces by way of a joke, and taking up one of his packages, he opened it. It was a trick, for the parcel contained garters. There were blue silk, pink silk, red silk, violet silk, mauve silk garters, and the buckles were made of two gilt metal Cupids, embracing each other. The girls uttered exclamations of delight and looked at them with that gravity which is natural to a woman when she is hankering after a bargain. They consulted one another by their looks or in a whisper, and replied in the same manner, and Madame was longingly handling a pair of orange garters that were broader and more imposing looking than the rest; really fit for the mistress of such an establishment.
The gentleman waited, for he was nourishing an idea.
“Come, my kittens,” he said, “you must try them on.”
There was a torrent of exclamations, and they squeezed their petticoats between their legs, as if they thought he was going to ravish them, but he quietly waited his time, and said: “Well, if you will not, I shall pack them up again.”
And he added cunningly: “I offer any pair they like, to those who will try them on.”
But they would not, and sat up very straight, and looked dignified.
But the two pumps looked so distressed that he renewed the offer to them, and Flora especially visibly hesitated, and he possessed her: “Come, my dear, a little courage! Just look at that lilac pair; it will suit your dress admirably . . . ”
That decided her, and pulling up her dress she showed a thick leg fit for a milk-maid, in a badly-fitting, coarse stocking. The commercial traveler stooped down and fastened the garter below the knee first of all and then above it; and he tickled the girl gently, which made her scream and jump. When he had done, he gave her the lilac pair, and asked: “Who next?”
“I! I!” they all shouted at once, and he began on Rosa the Jade, who uncovered a shapeless, round thing without any ankle, a regular “sausage of a leg,” as Raphaele used to say.
The commercial traveler complimented Fernande, and grew quite enthusiastic over her powerful columns.
The thin tibias of the handsome Jewess met less success, and Louise Cocote, by way of a joke, put her petticoats over his head, so that Madame was obliged to interfere to check such unseemly behavior.
Lastly, Madame herself put out her leg, a handsome, muscular, Norman leg, and in his surprise and pleasure, the commercial traveler gallantly took off his hat to salute that master calf, like a true French cavalier.
The two peasants, who were speechless from surprise, looked aside, out of the corners of their eyes, and they looked so exactly like fowls that the man with the light whiskers, when he sat up, said co — co — ri — co, under their very noses, and that gave rise to another storm of amusement.
The old people got out at Motteville, with their basket, their ducks, and their umbrella, and they heard the woman say to her husband, as they went away:
“They are bad women, who are off to that cursed place Paris.”
The funny commercial traveler himself got out at Rouen, after behaving so coarsely, that Madame was obliged sharply to put him into his right place, and she added, as a moral: “This will teach us not to talk to the first comer.”
At Oissel they changed trains, and at a little station further on, Monsieur Joseph Rivet was waiting for them with a large cart and a number of chairs in it, which was drawn by a white horse.
The carpenter politely kissed all the ladies, and then helped them into his conveyance.
Three of them sat on three chairs at the back, Raphaele, Madame and her brother on the three chairs in front, and Rosa, who had no seat, settled herself as comfortably as she could on tall Fernande’s knees, and then they set off.
But the horse’s jerky trot shook the cart so terribly that the chairs began to dance, and threw the travelers into the air, to the right and to the left, as if they had been dancing puppets, which made them make horrible grimaces and screams, which, however, were cut short by another jolt of the cart.
They clung onto the sides of the vehicle, their bonnets fell onto their backs, their noses on their shoulders, and the white horse went on stretching out his head, and holding out his tail quite straight, a little, hairless rat’s tail, with which he whisked his buttocks from time to time.
Joseph Rivet, with one leg on the shafts and the other bent under him, held out the reins with his elbows very high, and he kept uttering a kind of chuckling sound, which made the horse prick up its ears and go faster.
The green country extended on either side of the road, and here and there the colza in flower presented a waving expanse of yellow, from which there arose a strong, wholesome, sweet and penetrating smell, which the wind carried to some distance.
The cornflowers showed their little blue heads among the rye, and the women wanted to pick them, but Monsieur Rivet refused to stop.
Then sometimes a whole field appeared to be covered with blood, so thickly were the poppies growing, and the cart, which looked as if it were filled with flowers of more brilliant hue, drove on through the fields colored with wild flowers, and disappeared behind the trees of a farm, only to reappear and to go on again through the yellow or green standing crops, which were studded with red or blue.
One o’clock struck as they drove up to the carpenter’s door. They were tired out, and pale with hunger, as they had eaten nothing since they left home, and Madame Rivet ran out, and made them alight, one after another, and kissed them as soon as they were on the ground, and she seemed as if she would never tire of kissing her sister-inlaw, whom she apparently wanted to monopolize. They had lunch in the workshop, which had been cleared out for the next day’s dinner.
A capital omelette, followed by boiled chitterlings, and washed down by good, sharp cider, made them all feel comfortable.
Rivet had taken a glass so that he might hob-nob with them, and his wife cooked, waited on them, brought in the dishes, took them out, and asked all of them in a whisper whether they had everything they wanted. A number of boards standing against the walls, and heaps of shavings that had been swept into the corners, gave out a smell of planed wood, or carpentering, that resinous odor which penetrates the lungs.
They wanted to see the little girl, but she had gone to church, and would not be back until evening, so they all went out for a stroll in the country.
It was a small village, through which the high road passed. Ten or a dozen houses on either side of the single street, were inhabited by the butcher, the grocer, the carpenter, the inn-keeper, the shoemaker and the baker.
The church was at the end of the street, and was surrounded by a small churchyard, and four enormous lime-trees, which stood just outside the porch, shaded it completely. It was built of flint, in no particular style, and had a slated steeple. When you got past it, you were in the open country again, which was broken here and there by clumps of trees which hid the homestead.
Rivet had given his arm to his sister, out of politeness, although he was in his working clothes, and was walking with her majestically. His wife, who was overwhelmed by Raphaele’s gold-striped dress, was walking between her and Fernande, and round-about Rosa was trotting behind with Louise Cocote and Flora, the see-saw, who was limping along, quite tired out.
The inhabitants came to their doors, the children left off playing, and a window curtain would be raised, so as to show a muslin cap, while an old woman with a crutch, and who was almost blind, crossed herself as if it were a religious procession, and they all looked for a long time after those handsome ladies from the town, who had come so far to be present at the confirmation of Joseph Rivet’s little girl, and the carpenter rose very much in the public estimation.
As they passed the church, they heard some children singing; little shrill voices were singing a hymn, but Madame would not let them go in, for fear of disturbing the little cherubs.
After a walk, during which Joseph Rivet enumerated the principal landed proprietors, spoke about the yield of the land, and productiveness of the cows and sheep, he took his herd of women home and installed them in his house, and as it was very small, they had put them into the rooms, two and two.
Just for once, Rivet would sleep in the workshop on the shavings; his wife was going to share her bed with her sister-inlaw, and Fernande and Raphaele were to sleep together in the next room. Louise and Flora were put into the kitchen, where they had a mattress on the floor, and Rosa had a little dark cupboard at the top of the stairs to herself, close to the loft, where the candidate for confirmation was to sleep.
When the girl came in, she was overwhelmed with kisses; all the women wished to caress her, with that need of tender expansion, that habit of professional wheedling, which had made them kiss the ducks in the railway carriage.
They all of them took her onto their laps, stroked her soft, light hair, and pressed her in their arms with vehement and spontaneous outbursts of affection, and the child, who was very good and religious, bore it all patiently.
As the day had been a fatiguing one for every body, they all went to bed soon after dinner. The whole village was wrapped in that perfect stillness of the country, which is almost like a religious silence, and the girls, who were accustomed to the noisy evenings of their establishment, felt rather impressed by the perfect repose of the sleeping village, and they shivered, not with cold, but with those little shivers of solitude which come over uneasy and troubled hearts.
As soon as they were in bed, two and two together, they clasped each other in their arms, as if to protect themselves against this feeling of the calm and profound slumber of the earth. But Rosa the Jade, who was alone in her little dark cupboard, felt a vague and painful emotion come over her.
She was tossing about in bed, unable to get to sleep, when she heard the faint sobs of a crying child close to her head through the partition. She was frightened, and called out, and was answered by a weak voice, broken by sobs. It was the little girl, who was always used to sleeping in her mother’s room, and who was frightened in her small attic.
Rosa was delighted, got up softly so as not to awaken anyone, and went and fetched the child. She took her into her warm bed, kissed her and pressed her to her bosom, cossetted her, lavished exaggerated manifestations of tenderness on her, and at last grew calmer herself and went to sleep. And till morning, the candidate for confirmation slept with her head on the prostitute’s naked bosom.
At five o’clock, the little church bell ringing the Angelus, woke the women up, who usually slept the whole morning long.
The peasants were up already, and the women went busily from house to house, carefully bringing short, starched, muslin dresses in band — boxes, or very long wax tapers, with a bow of silk fringed with gold in the middle, and with dents in the wax for the fingers.
The sun was already high in the blue sky, which still had a rosy tint towards the horizon, like a faint trace of dawn, remaining. Families of fowls were walking about outside houses, and here and there a black cock, with a glistening breast, raised his head, which was crowned by his red comb, flapped his wings, and uttered his shrill crow, which the other cocks repeated.
Vehicles of all sorts came from neighboring parishes, and discharged tall, Norman women, in dark dresses, with neck — handkerchiefs crossed over the bosom, which were fastened with silver brooches, a hundred years old.
The men had put on their blouses over their new frock — coats, or over their old dress — coats of green cloth, the two tails of which hung down below their blouses. When the horses were in the stable, there was a double line of rustic conveyances along the road; carts, cabriolets, tilburies, char — a — bancs, traps of every shape and age, resting on their shafts, or else with them in the air.
The carpenter’s house was as busy as a beehive. The ladies, in dressing — jackets and petticoats, with their hanging down, thin, short hair, which looked as if it were faded and worn by use, were busy dressing the child, who was standing motionless on a table, while Madame Tellier was directing the movements of her battalion. They washed her, did her hair, dressed her, and with the help of a number of pins, they arranged the folds of her dress, and took in the waist, which was too large.
Then, when she was ready, she was told to sit down and not to move, and the women hurried off to get ready themselves.
The church bell began to ring again, and its tinkle was lost in the air, like a feeble voice which is soon drowned in space. The candidates came out of the houses, and went towards the parochial building which contained the two — school and the mansion house — and which stood quite at one end of the village, while the church was situated at the other.
The parents, in their very best clothes, followed their children, with awkward looks, and those clumsy movements of the body, which is always bent at work.
The little girls disappeared in a cloud of muslin, which looked like whipped cream, while the lads, who looked like embryo waiters in a café, and whose heads shone with pomatum, walked with their legs apart, so as not to get any dust or dirt onto their black trousers.
It was something for the family to be proud of, when a large number of relations, who had come from a distance, surrounded the child, and, consequently, the carpenter’s triumph was complete.
Madame Tellier’s regiment, with its mistress at its head, followed Constance; her father gave his arm to his sister, her mother walked by the side of Raphaele, Fernande, with Rosa and the two pumps together, and thus they walked majestically through the village, like a general’s staff in full uniform, while the effect on the village was startling.
At the school, the girls arranged themselves under the Sister of Mercy, and the boys under the schoolmaster, and they started off, singing a hymn as they went. The boys led the way, in two files, between the two rows of vehicles, from which the horses had been taken out, and the girls followed in the same order; and as all the people in the village had given the town ladies the precedence out of politeness, they came immediately behind the girls, and lengthened the double line of the procession still more, three on the right and three on the left, while their dresses were as striking as a bouquet in fireworks.
When they went into the church, the congregation grew quite excited. They pressed against each other, they turned round, they jostled one another in order to see, and some of the devout ones spoke almost aloud, as they were so astonished at the sight of those ladies whose dresses were more trimmed than the priest’s chasuble.
The Mayor offered them his pew, the first one on the right, close to the choir, and Madame Tellier sat there with her sister-inlaw, Fernande and Raphaele, Rosa the Jade, and the two pumps occupied the second seat, in company with the carpenter.
The choir was full of kneeling children, the girls on one side, and the boys on the other, and the long wax tapers which they held looked like lances, pointing in all directions, and three men were standing in front of the lectern, singing as loud as they could.
They prolonged the syllables of the sonorous Latin indefinitely, holding onto Amens with interminable a — a’s, while the serpent of the organ kept up its monotorious, long drawn out notes, which that longthroated, copper instrument uttered.
A child’s shrill voice took up the reply, and from time to time a priest sitting in a stall and wearing a biretta, got up, muttered something, and sat down again, while the three singers continued, with their eyes fixed on the big book of plain song lying open before them on the outstretched wings of an eagle, mounted on a pivot.
Then silence ensued, and so the service went on, and towards the end of it, Rosa, with her head in both her hands, suddenly thought of her mother and her village church on a similar occasion. She almost fancied that that day had returned, when she was so small, and almost hidden in her white dress, and she began to cry.
First of all, she wept silently, and the tears dropped slowly from her eyes, but her emotion increased with her recollections, and she began to sob. She took out her pocket-handkerchief, wiped her eyes, and held it to her mouth, so as not to scream, but it was useless.
A sort of rattle escaped her throat, and she was answered by two other profound, heart-breaking sobs; for her two neighbors, Louise and Flora, who were kneeling near her, overcome by similar recollections, were sobbing by her side, amidst a flood of tears, and as they are contagious, Madame soon in turn found that her eyes were wet, and on turning to her sister-inlaw, she saw that all the occupants of her seat were also crying.
Soon, throughout the church, here and there, a wife, a mother, a sister, seized by the strange sympathy of poignant emotion, and agitated by those handsome ladies on their knees, who were shaken by their sobs, was moistening her cambric pocket-handkerchief, and pressing her beating heart with her left hand.
Just as the sparks from an engine will set fire to dry grass, so the tears of Rosa and of her companions infected the whole congregation in a moment. Men, women, old men, and lads in new blouses were soon all sobbing, and something superhuman seemed to be hovering over their heads; a spirit, the powerful breath of an invisible and all-powerful being.
Suddenly a species of madness seemed to pervade the church, the noise of a crowd in a state of frenzy, a tempest of sobs and stifled cries. It passed through them like gusts of wind which bow the trees in a forest, and the priest, paralyzed by emotion, stammered out incoherent prayers, without finding words, prayers of the soul, when it soars towards heaven.
The people behind him, gradually grew calmer. The cantors, in all the dignity of their white surplices, went on in somewhat uncertain voices, and the serpent itself seemed hoarse, as if the instrument had been weeping; the priest, however, raised his hand, as a sign for them to be still, and went and stood on the chancel steps, when everybody was silent, immediately.
After a few remarks on what had just taken place, which he attributed to a miracle, he continued, turning to the seats where the carpenter’s guests were sitting:
“I especially thank you, my dear sisters, who have come from such a distance, and whose presence among us, whose evident faith and ardent piety have set such a salutary example to all. You have edified my parish; your emotion has warmed all hearts; without you, this great day would not, perhaps, have had this really divine character. It is sufficient, at times, that there should be one chosen to keep in the flock, to make the whole flock blessed.”
His voice failed him again, from emotion, and he said no more, but concluded the service.
Then they all left the church as quickly as possible, and the children themselves were restless, as they were tired with such a prolonged tension of the mind. Besides that, they were hungry, and by degrees they all left the churchyard, to see about dinner.
There was a crowd outside, a noisy crowd, a babel of loud voices, where the shrill Norman accent was discernible. The villagers formed two ranks, and when the children appeared, each family seized its own.
The whole houseful of women caught hold of Constance, surrounded her and kissed her, and Rosa was especially demonstrative. At last she took hold of one hand, while Madame Tellier held the other, and Raphaele and Fernande held up her long muslin petticoat, so that it might not drag in the dust; Louise and Flora brought up the rear with Madame Rivet, and the child, who was very silent and thoughtful, set off home, in the midst of this guard of honor.
The dinner was served in the workshop, on long boards supported by trestles, and through the open door they could see all the enjoyment that was going on. Everywhere they were feasting, and through every window were to be seen tables surrounded by people in their Sunday best, and a cheerful noise was heard in every house, while the men were sitting in their shirt-sleeves, drinking cider, glass after glass.
In the carpenter’s house, their gaiety maintained somewhat of an air of reserve, which was the consequence of the emotion of the girls in the morning, and Rivet was the only one who was in a good cue, and he was drinking to excess. Madame Tellier was looking at the clock every moment, for, in order not to lose two days following, they ought to take the 3:55 train, which would bring them to Fécamp by dark.
The carpenter tried very hard to distract her attention, so as to keep his guests until the next day, but he did not succeed, for she never joked when there was business to be done, and as soon as they had had their coffee she ordered her girls to make haste and get ready, and then, turning to her brother, she said:
“You must have the horse put in immediately,” and she herself went to finish her last preparations.
When she came down again, her sister-inlaw was waiting to speak to her about the child, and a long conversation took place, in which, however, nothing was settled. The carpenter’s wife finished, and pretended to be very much moved, and Madame Tellier, who was holding the girl on her knees, would not pledge herself to anything definite, but merely gave vague promises . . . she would not forget her, there was plenty of time, and then, they should meet again.
But the conveyance did not come to the door, and the women did not come downstairs. Upstairs, they even heard loud laughter, falls, little screams, and much clapping of hands, and so, while the carpenter’s wife went to the stable to see whether the cart was ready, Madame went upstairs.
Rivet, who was very drunk, and half undressed, was vainly trying to violate Rosa, who was half choking with laughter. The two pumps were holding him by the arms and trying to calm him, as they were shocked at such a scene after that morning’s ceremony; but Raphaele and Fernande were urging him on, writhing and holding their sides with laughter, and they uttered shrill cries at every useless attempt that the drunken fellow made.
The man was furious, his face was red, he was all unbuttoned, and he was trying to shake off the two women who were clinging to him, while he was pulling Rosa’s petticoat with all his might.
But Madame, who was very indignant, went up to her brother, seized him by the shoulders, and threw him out of the room with such violence that he fell against a wall in the passage, and a minute afterwards they heard him pumping water onto his head in the yard, and when he came back with the cart, he was already quite appeased.
They started off in the same way as they had come the day before, and the little white horse started off with his quick, dancing trot. Under the hot sun, their fun, which had been checked during dinner, broke out again. The girls now were amused at the jolts which the wagon gave, pushed their neighbors’ chairs, and burst out laughing every moment, for they were in the vein for it, after Rivet’s vain attempt.
There was a haze over the country, the roads were glaring, and dazzled their eyes, and the wheels raised up two trails of dust, which followed the cart for a long time along the high road, and presently Fernande, who was fond of music, asked Rosa to sing something, and she boldly struck up the Gros Curé de Meudon, but Madame made her stop immediately, as she thought it a song which was very unsuitable for such a day, and she added:
“Sing us something of Béranger’s.” And so, after a moment’s hesitation, she began Béranger’s song, The Grandmother, in her worn-out voice, and all the girls, and even Madame herself, joined in the chorus:
“How I regret
My dimpled arms,
My well-made legs,
And my vanished charms.”
“That is first rate,” Rivet declared, carried away by the rhythm, and they shouted the refrain to every verse, while Rivet beat time on the shafts with his foot, and on the horse’s back with the reins, who, as if he himself were carried away by the rhythm, broke into a wild gallop, and threw all the women in a heap, one on the top of the other, onto the bottom of the conveyance.
They got up, laughing as if they were mad, and the song went on, shouted at the top of their voices, beneath the burning sky, among the ripening grain, to the rapid gallop of the little horse, who set off every time the refrain was sung, and galloped a hundred yards, to their great delight, while occasionally a stone breaker by the roadside sat up and looked at the wild and shouting female load through his wire spectacles.
When they got out at the station, the carpenter said:
“I am sorry you are going; we might have had some fun together.” But Madame replied very sensibly: “Everything has its right time, and we cannot always be enjoying ourselves.” And then he had a sudden inspiration:
“Look here, I will come and see you at Fécamp next month.” And he gave a knowing look, with a bright and roguish eye.
“Come,” Madame said, “you must be sensible; you may come if you like, but you are not to be up to any of your tricks.”
He did not reply, and as they heard the whistle of the train, he immediately began to kiss them all. When it came to Rosa’s turn, he tried to get to her mouth, which she, however, smiling with her lips closed, turned away from him each time by a rapid movement of her head to one side. He held her in his arms, but he could not attain his object, as his large whip, which he was holding in his hand and waving behind the girl’s back in desperation, interfered with his efforts.
“Passengers for Rouen, take your seats, please!” a guard cried, and they got in. There was a slight whistle, followed by a loud whistle, from the engine, which noisily puffed out its first jet of steam, while the wheels began to turn a little, with a visible effort, and Rivet left the station and went to the gate by the side of the line to get another look at Rosa, and as the carriage full of human merchandise passed him, he began to crack his whip and to jump, while he sang at the top of his voice:
“How I regret
My dimpled arms,
My well-made legs,
And my vanished charms.”
And then he watched a white pocket-handkerchief, which somebody was waving, as it disappeared in the distance.
They slept the peaceful sleep of a quiet conscience, until they got to Rouen, and when they returned to the house, refreshed and rested, Madame could not help saying:
“It was all very well, but I was already longing to get home.”
They hurried over their supper, and then, when they had put on their usual light evening costume, waited for their usual customers, and the little colored lamp outside the door told the passers-by that the flock had returned to the fold, and in a moment the news spread, nobody knew how or by whom.
Monsieur Philippe, the banker’s son, even carried his forgetfulness so far, as to send a special messenger to Monsieur Tournevau, who was in the boson of his family.
The fish-curer used every Sunday to have several cousins to dinner, and they were having coffee, when a man came in with a letter in his hand. Monsieur Tournevau was much excited, he opened the envelope and grew pale; it only contained these words in pencil:
“The cargo of cod has been found; the ship has come into port; good business for you. Come immediately.“
He felt in his pockets, gave the messenger two-pence, and suddenly blushing to his ears, he said: “I must go out.” He handed his wife the laconic and mysterious note, rang the bell, and when the servant came in, he asked her to bring him his hat and overcoat immediately. As soon as he was in the street, he began to run, and the way seemed to him to be twice as long as usual, in consequence of his impatience.
Madame Tellier’s establishment had put on quite a holiday look. On the ground floor, a number of sailors were making a deafening noise, and Louise and Flora drank with one and the other, so as to merit their name of the two Pumps more than ever. They were being called for everywhere at once; already they were not quite adequate to their business, and the night bid fair to be a very jolly one for them.
The upstairs room was full by nine o’clock. Monsieur Vasse, the Judge of the Tribunal of Commerce, Madame’s usual, but Platonic wooer, was talking to her in a corner, in a low voice, and they were both smiling, as if they were about to come to an understanding.
Monsieur Poulin, the ex-mayor, was holding Rosa on his knees; and she, with her nose close to his, was running her hands through the old gentleman’s white whiskers.
Tall Fernande, who was lying on the sofa, had both her feet on Monsieur Pinipesse, the tax-collector’s stomach, and her back on young Monsieur Philippe’s waistcoat; her right arm was round his neck, while she held a cigarette in her left.
Raphaele appeared to be discussing matters with Monsieur Dupuis, the insurance agent, and she finished by saying: “Yes, my dear, I will.”
Just then, the door opened suddenly, and Monsieur Tournevau came in, who was greeted with enthusiastic cries of: “Long live Tournevau!” And Raphaele, who was still twirling round, went and threw herself into his arms. He seized her in a vigorous embrace, and without saying a word, lifting her up as if she had been a feather, he went through the room, opened the door at the other end and disappeared.
Rosa was chatting to the ex-mayor, kissing him every moment, and pulling both his whiskers at the same time in order to keep his head straight.
Fernande and Madame remained with the four men, and Monsieur Philippe exclaimed: “I will pay for some champagne; get three bottles, Madame Tellier.” And Fernande gave him a hug, and whispered to him: “Play us a waltz, will you?” So he rose and sat down at the old piano in the corner, and managed to get a hoarse waltz out of the entrails of the instrument.
The tall girl put her arms round the tax-collector, Madame asked Monsieur Vasse to take her in his arms, and the two couples turned round, kissing as they danced. Monsieur Vasse, who had formerly danced in good society, waltzed with such elegance, that Madame was quite captivated.
Frederic brought the champagne; the first cork popped, and Monsieur Philippe played the introduction to a quadrille, through which the four dancers walked in society fashion, decorously, with propriety, deportment, bows and curtsies, and then they began to drink.
Monsieur Philippe next struck up a lively polka, and Monsieur Tournevau started off with the handsome Jewess, whom he held up in the air, without letting her feet touch the ground. Monsieur Pinipesse and Monsieur Vasse had started off with renewed vigor, and from time to time one or other couple would stop to toss off a long glass of sparkling wine, and that dance was threatening to become never-ending, when Rosa opened the door.
“I want to dance,” she exclaimed. And she caught hold of Monsieur Dupuis, who was sitting idle on the couch, and the dance began again.
But the bottles were empty. “I will pay for one,” Monsieur said. “So will I,” Monsieur Vasse declared. “And I will do the same,” Monsieur Dupuis remarked.
They all began to clap their hands, and it soon became a regular ball, and from time to time, Louise and Flora ran upstairs quickly, had a few turns, while their customers downstairs grew impatient, and then they returned regretfully to the café. At midnight they were still dancing.
Madame shut her eyes to what was going on and she had long private talks in corners with Monsieur Vasse, as if to settle the last details of something that had already been settled.
At last, at one o’clock, the two married men, Monsieur Tournevau and Monsieur Pinipesse declared that they were going home, and wanted to pay. Nothing was charged for except the champagne, and that only cost six francs a bottle, instead of ten, which was the usual price, and when they expressed their surprise at such generosity, Madame, who was beaming, said to them:
“We don’t have a holiday every day.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53